Don’t Mind Me: Education can’t be a pass/fail vocation

Patricia Feehily

Reporter:

Patricia Feehily

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn facing the ire of teachers at the recent ASTI conference in Wexford
THE whole country is obsessed with education. Pedagogical experts abound and everyone has an opinion on the subject. More than that, everyone is convinced that his or her opinion is the right one. We take education very seriously, unlike the poet, Patrick Kavanagh who, from time to time expressed some very unorthodox opinions on the subject, including a feeling that “through a hole in reason’s ceiling, we could fly to knowledge without ever going to college.”

THE whole country is obsessed with education. Pedagogical experts abound and everyone has an opinion on the subject. More than that, everyone is convinced that his or her opinion is the right one. We take education very seriously, unlike the poet, Patrick Kavanagh who, from time to time expressed some very unorthodox opinions on the subject, including a feeling that “through a hole in reason’s ceiling, we could fly to knowledge without ever going to college.”

If he was around now, he might have a different opinion seeing that before we know it a PhD could well become a requisite for a job on the roads, while a pass mark in Ordinary Level Maths in the Leaving Cert will suffice to get an applicant into a training college for primary 
teachers.

But wouldn’t you think that, with all this passion and reverence for education, teaching would be the best paid and most rewarding job in the country and demand the highest CAO points in the system? But according to the teachers unions that is far from the case. And wouldn’t you also think that so aware have we become of the benefits of education, that we would by now be brighter and smarter than the rest of the world?

According to the OECD however, that is also far from the case. Maybe we’re too busy copying every daft educational policy that surfaces across the water to be able to achieve any kind of scholastic superiority. The good news, however, is that British educationalists are scrapping some of their dumbed down brainwaves and are reverting to good old traditional methods of teaching where excellence is once more acceptable. Fingers crossed, we’ll follow suit.

Now, since everyone has an opinion on education, and since this column is the only place where I can get a word in edgeways on the topic without being shouted down, you’re going to have to put up with yet another opinion. Let me start by saying that I’m not altogether impressed by the current countrywide obsession which seems to value education, not so much for its own intrinsic worth, as for its potential to provide a good job and an enviable lifestyle to go with it. Verbs aside, there’s a touch of vulgarity creeping in with all eyes on the rich pickings and multi-national industry now dictating the very definition of education. Why then would teachers be the only sector of society expected to be satisfied, and even blessed, with having a vocation instead of a hefty pay packet?

Opinions on any subject are insufferable to those who hold different views, but the problem my generation has when commenting on education is that we invariably suffer from one or other of two different syndromes – the golden age syndrome and the ‘I missed out’ syndrome. Unfortunately for me, I suffer from both, and as a result induce stifled yawns every time I talk about education. I’m always telling younger people that we got a much better education in my day. We learnt our tables and our spellings off by heart; we learned syntax, parsed sentences and defined our transitive and intransitive verbs with ease and we did mental arithmetic with mind boggling dexterity because the nearest thing to a calculator was an ancient abacus on a shelf in the baby infant’s classroom. They look at me as if I graduated from a Hedge School.

Then the “I missed out” syndrome kicks in. It’s easier now to get 10 A1s in the Leaving Cert than it was to get three bare honours in my day, I tell them, or if Classical Studies or Ag Science or even CSPE had been on my Leaving Cert curriculum, I’d have made it as a scholar. Come to think of it, if Domestic Science had been called Home Economics and hadn’t been confined to girls, I might have had more respect for the subject and secured even higher honours.

I was born too soon, but does anyone care?

I can’t conclude without expressing an opinion of what transpired at the teachers’ conferences. Ruairi certainly had a hard time.

On top of a growing national obsession, he also had to cope with a display of downright rudeness and bad manners from a section of teachers at one conference. The country, particularly the media, was appalled at this unseemly outburst which potentially defiled their favourite obsession, but nobody asked why this particular bunch of teachers was so angry, while their older colleagues, secure in their jobs, their pay and their pensions, publicly disowned them. A two tier teaching profession doesn’t bode well for the future of Irish education and thankfully the Minister has recognised this and has vowed to make amends. But I thought pay discrimination between workers doing the same job had been outlawed long ago, and why the unions haven’t alerted our European overlords to our transgressions before now is a mystery.

Finally there is Ruairi’s tentative suggestion that Honours Maths in the Leaving Cert should be a requirement for entry to teacher training colleges. You’d think he had suggested bringing back the singing test, so outraged were the teachers.

Where’s their pride, for heaven’s sake? Honours Maths is hardly beyond their intellectual capacity and if it is, then our chances of producing a future Einstein must be seriously diminished. The only thing that surprised me was that the Minister didn’t include Honours English as well, because for all its obsession with education, the country of Yeats, Joyce and Shaw is now seriously challenged when it comes to literacy – not to talk of syntax.